For many in the tourism industry, the U.S. governments partial shutdown could not come at a worse time. The week the United States closed its national parks, monuments and museums coincides with Golden Week, designated by the Chinese government as a time for its citizens to travel.
The United States was named the top “dream destination” for Chinese travelers, which make up the fastest-growing tourism market into the United States. But the dream vacation for many Chinese tourists has turned into a nightmare, according to Haybina Hao, director of international development for the National Tour Association, whose tour operators and other members focus on travel into and within North America.
“Many Chinese visitors have saved for years to take the trip of a lifetime to our country. They wanted to see Yellowstone, the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon,” Hao said. “But they’re seeing none of it. They are extremely frustrated and confused by U.S. politics.”
While Chinese travelers are losing a golden opportunity, U.S. tour operators are losing money. “I had a group of 25 Chinese visitors who planned to visit Yellowstone this week, but they cannot get in,” said Sonny Sang of California-based ACC America China Connection, a member of NTA’s China Inbound Program. “I re-routed them to another destination, but I’ll lose $10,000 on this group. And I have another group of 22 arriving on Sunday to see Yellowstone. The financial consequences are unbearable for me as a small tour operator.”
More and more Chinese have been arriving since 2008, when China began to allow leisure travelers to visit the United States in group tours. Since then, China has become the fastest-growing source of visitors for U.S. hotels, restaurants and attractions. Last year Chinese visitation here increased 41 percent, and spending by Chinese travelers rose 19 percent, following 47 percent increases in both 2010 and 2011.
Now they just need a place to spend it. “The tour operators I talked to are really scrambling to find alternative activities, including a tour operator who has more than 20 groups in the U.S. this week.” Hao said. “Compared to other countries that utilize creative ways to lure Chinese tourists, the U.S. shutdown will shatter the confidence of international travel companies.”
Many U.S. tour operators have become creative in salvaging their groups’ experiences, including Neil Amrine, owner of Guide Service of Washington (D.C.). “The biggest disappointment is the Smithsonian being closed, but we’re coming up with other solutions,” said Amrine, who revised the itinerary for a group of Chinese travelers this week, adding for-profit attractions and employing little-known pathways to view popular monuments. “They weren’t thrilled at first, but I think they’ll leave happy.”
The challenge for tour operators—and for the entire U.S. tourism industry—is to work with city and regional tourism organizations to develop alternatives to national parks and monuments that will satisfy travelers. Most are finding a wealth of options across the country, from California to Washington, D.C. At the same time, they’re keeping an eye on continuing closures and tourism roadblocks caused by the shutdown.
"We're fielding calls nonstop and posing alternatives that are working," Amrine said. "We've had only one group cancel, so we've been lucky ... so far."
Founded in 1951, NTA is the leading business-building association for travel professionals interested in the North American market—inbound, outbound and within the continent. For more information, visit NTAonline.com.
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